Taxing Soda Drinks: Did Philadelphia Do The Right Thing?

Is a tax on soda and other sugar drinks justified in light of government policies that tax tobacco and similar “unhealthy products?” If so, where does the justification to tax “unhealthy products” end? If soda drinks are now taxed,  would donuts and candy bars be next?

The debate on whether or not to tax soda and other sugar drinks has been around for years. Doctors, scientists and policymakers says it could be a powerful weapon to reduce obesity, in the same way that cigarette taxes have helped curb smoking. According to the Center for Disease Control & Prevention, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. The percentage of children aged 6–11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 18% in 2012.

A soda drink is a cheap and inexpensive beverage choice when compare to other beverage options, especially water.  An interesting animated short video was written and directed by Ross Bollinger last year on this issue.

In February of this year, a cancer research institute in the United Kingdom issued a report that estimates that a 20% tax on sugary drinks in the UK would prevent 3.7 million people becoming obese over the next decade.

In 2013, then New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, used his regulatory authority, to impose a 16-ounce limit on the size of sugary beverages sold in certain places in New York City.  One year later that controversial ban was overturned and rejected by the New York Supreme Court

Hand Holding Soda Can Pouring A Crazy Amount Of Sugar In Metapho

But that did not stop Bloomberg from pushing his crusade to curb the consumption of soda drinks. Last month, with Bloomberg’s help, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney  successfully passed a citywide tax on soda drinks sold in the City of Brotherly Love.  Bloomberg provided most of the financial support to Kenney’s public campaign to tax soda drinks in Philadelphia.

Philadephia now becomes the first major city in the United States to impose a tax on soda drinks. Berkeley, California was the very first city to do so.  Will this start a trend around the country? The debate is clear:

  • Opponents of a soda tax argue that : (1) soda alone is not causing diabetes, obesity and other public health concerns, (2) sugar drinks are being singled out unfairly and (3) consumers have a right to enjoy sodas without being penalized by, the editorial page of the Hartford Courant described, a “Nanny-State Overreach”.

The debate is controversial to say the least. For example,  presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton disagree on the soda tax.  Sanders opposes the tax because he believes it unfairly taxes low income families. Clinton supports the tax in Philadelphia because the tax monies would go to creating universal preschool programs in that city.

Sugar is a highly addictive substance. Too many consumer products are laced with sugar. Sugar causes greater human harm than the value of its taste in food and drink products. Even if there is no soda tax, society still pays a high “tax” in health care and other costs for the profound negative effects of sugar consumption.

Ellwood Thompson’s supports all reasonably calculated measures to reduce the growing epidemics of obesity and diabetes in today’s sugar food and drink culture. If paying an extra 3 or 4 cents on a can of soda has a measurable and meaningful effect on saving lives and reducing society’s costs in health care, then — besides saving lives — the significant cost benefit is sound fiscal policy.

Of course,  such a tax by itself may have little or no effect on the increasing obesity and diabetes crisis in our country.  The Philadelphia experience will tell us if there is a correlation between this type of tax and its intended purpose. We look forward to learning more in this unfolding debate.

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